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The Gallery and the Boutique

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On the eve of the 2008 financial crisis, Le Monde's lifestyle editor Véronique Lorelle claimed that 'The cool new way to get one’s culture is not by going to the museum’, but instead 'going shopping'. Her statement is increasingly becoming more prophetic; attendance at museums is declining, while sales of luxury fashion items soars. However, it is not merely due to one preferring one of two different experiences over the other, it is instead because of the revolution in retail design which has allowed the boutique to supplant, for many, the museum. Take, for instance, the Louis-Vuitton flagship on the Champs Élysées in Paris. The store features sculpture by James Turrell and an elevator designed Olafur Eliasson. The store is at a certain point no longer merely a display for it's products, as traditional stores are, but instead the idea is to create an experience. Everywhere one looks in the fashion industry, collaborations ensue between the traditionally separate worlds of art (non-commercial) and fashion (commercial). It is true that the nascent form of this relationship has existed for some time, though. Émile Zola's « Au Bonheur des Dames » was written in 1883 to cover this exact phenomenon, and the musings of Walter Benjamin portray a similar blur between these two worlds. However, it is a distinctly recent phenomenon on the scale it currently exists, and the marriage between the two may finally be set in stone.

 Le Bon Marché, what most agree to be the first true department store

Perhaps we can trace the origins of this phenomenon to Le Bon Marché, the first department store, and the inspiration behind Zola's Bonheur. Boucicaut revolutionized retail design. The traditional depot stored goods until their purchase, with little effort made to dress them up, and instead reliance on a base utility. However, Boucicaut made an effort to stimulate desire, a force more powerful than any utility or practicality. In collaboration with Gustave Eiffel (The creator of the Eiffel tower), Boucicaut created a palatial space, which brought millions to it, and is still considered one of the finest landmarks of Paris - not a museum, nor a park, but a store. It is the first true expression of Marx's idea of the 'phantasmagoria' which merchandise creates; the total aesthetic experience of goods, which may even supersede the goods themselves. However, it would not be for some time that technology would allow the complete marriage of these worlds. Fashion and art may live side by side in Le Bon Marché, however, it is a primitive example of our present phenomenon, and nowhere near it's extent. 

So then, who does define our current extent? Andy Warhol famously said the following;

Business art is the step that comes after art. I started as a commercial artist, and I want to finish as a business artist. Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. During the hippie era people put down the idea of business. They’d say “money is bad” and “working is bad”. But making money is art, and working is art - and good business is the best art.

It has taken some time for the nature of Warhol's statement to be realized in a global sense, however, it is at our current impasse that we most feel it. Whereas the avant-garde before Warhol (Duchamp and Dada, in this case) championed the ready-made, and pushed the boundaries of art to the point of destruction, they nevertheless failed to transcend the boundary of art. It would take Warhol to achieve this. Warhol used commercial objects to make art, which could then be seamlessly transitioned back to the world of commerce. The name of his studio, The Factory was a rather open admittance of this fact. However, for his time, it was revolutionary. However, now, his work underlines much more than a rather closed-off New York art scene. In 2008 the Journal des Arts posed the question; ‘Are we witnessing the emergence of a new form of patronage in the field of contemporary art?' in response to two exhibitions set up by Chanel and Hermès. These were the so-called ‘nomad exhibitions’, housed in avant-garde architectural constructs, or roaming capsules, as the Journal des Arts put it. Chanel’s Mobile Art pavilion, conceived by Karl Lagerfeld and designed by Zaha Hadid—‘inspired by the brand’s distinctive layering of exquisite details within an elegant, cohesive whole’—featured an exhibition curated by Fabrice Bousteau, editorial director of Beaux Arts, to which Daniel Buren, Sylvie Fleury, Yoko Ono and Wim Delvoye agreed to contribute works inspired by a Chanel handbag. Hermès would display the H-Box - a giant aluminum box, the name a reference to an old style of Hermès luggage - designed by Didier Fuiza Faustino, in which housed video installations by Benjamin Weil. Prada's attempt at the same would follow a year later with the Prada transformer, a transformable building designed by the famed architect Rem Koolhaus. 

Hermès "H-Box" on display

What is most salient to note is the fact that all of these displays and techniques are loss leaders. They lose money. For instance, in Prada’s case, their expansion of artistic pursuits came at a time when the company’s profits had fallen from £36 million in 2001 to £19 million in 2002. Its reported overall debt stood at €1.5 billion in 2003. Jacques Herzog, who designed Prada's Tokyo flagship noted that Miuccia Prada herself had wanted to reinvent the brand through architecture. The flagship stores of many brands now themselves are the talk of architecture magazines, and are significant as buildings beyond their purpose. However, the value comes in the fact that they cannot be separated from their purpose. Whereas the Burj Khalifa, for instance, contains businesses, it is not known for them, and the businesses are only known due to their occupancy of the tower, the buildings of Prada or Louis Vuttion or Gucci share an inextricable link with the brands who built them, and are an indispensable part of the makeup of the brand. Now, too, these brands build spaces which are not even directly retail spaces. The Louis Vuttion Foundation, a building designed by Frank Gehry and built at a cost of $143 million represents this new frontier; the opening ceremony was graced by eventual-president-of-France François Hollande. The concurrent opening of Fondazione Prada in Milan, designed by Prada's longtime partner Koolhaus, is evidence of the popularity of this trend. Of course, not all brands or stores have this money at their disposal, however, this has not ceased to change the face of the independent boutique. ikram in Chicago now features an art gallery and cafe. Anchoret in Beijing, SONG in Vienna, and Dover Street Market in London all feature non-traditional businesses coexisting in their spaces. This is the case with an increasing number of stores.

Lanvin's Japan-exclusive En Bleu line

So then, we must ask, where does this all come from? What is the end game? Up until the 1990s, brand licenses, especially in overseas markets, were a mess. This is especially true of China, which was for the longest time, an emerging market for brands. Brands had little issue offering their names to other companies, notably Mitsui in Japan, and then having their name sub-licensed to others. Though this notably damaged major brands, including leading to the decline of Pierre Cardin, brands often had little control over how their licenses were used. Burberry ended their Japanese licenses with Mitsui in 2015, even though their licenses generated over 100 million GBP. Tom Ford and Domenico de Sole did the same for Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, whilst Sidney Toledano ended much of Dior's licensed production. It marked a shift from pure profit motive, and a lapse in the production of phantasmagoria, to a return to the project of Boucicaut, albeit on a much grander scale; the creation of dreams (art). There are many ways to consider this. We could consider it how Marxist critics have for centuries. Or, as Chin-tao Wu has put it; "[fashion] depends upon the privileges of the exclusive few at the top of the exchange-economy pyramid, even as it exploits the dreams of the vast majority at the bottom." However, perhaps there exists a positive in the work the Louis Vuitton and Prada have done in opening museums and expediting the aestheticization of the world. As Lipovetsky put it in an interview with Crash:

But we need to give people the tools they need to succeed in this grand project of making life a work of art – to use a bit of an overblown expression. That’s where we should build our “policy”; not a politician’s policy, but a policy that gives meaning to our future. Our future will require more than justice – though it’s true that we need to regulate capitalism – but we also have to change things in our educational system, especially because I think this is what people actually want. Artistic taste is a powerful thing: it gives pleasure. That’s what we need to support. Education is the primary tool that helps shape our tastes. As a humanist culture, we are under an obligation to give people an opportunity to experience the arts. It’s our collective project!

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